Navajo Code Talkers > Introduction

A narrative of the Navajo Code Talkers.

The Navajo Code Talkers contributed to USA's victory over Japan in World War II.  The Code Talkers were soldiers of the U.S. Marines Corps. (USMC) who created a secret code which made it possible for the United States to use the code in defeating the Japanese in World War II.  When the United States created various warfare codes before World War II, most of the codes were deciphered by the enemy. The Japanese who were known experts in decoding messages were never able to decipher the Navajo secret code.

The success of using the code was due to the complexity of the Navajo language.  There were approximately thirty non-Navajos who could understand and speak the language but not all of them could speak it fluently;  one of them was Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary, who lived on the Navajo Reservation and spoke Navajo fluently.  Mr. Johnston who was a veteran of World War I, proposed to the USMC of recruiting Navajo Marines who could create a code that the Japanese experts would not be able to understand.

However, with unforeseen questions by the USMC of Mr. Johnston's proposal, recruitment of Navajos to become Code Talkers began in the spring of 1942.  To begin recruitment, the USMC met with Chee Dodge, Chairman, Navajo Tribal Council on the Navajo Reservation.  The Chairman approved the proposal and delivered the recruitment mandate of the USMC by shortwave radio communications throughout the reservation.  An immediate response took place by Navajo candidates who were fluent in both English and Navajo languages as specified by the USMC mandate.  Many of the candidates were still school age students who wanted an opportunity to enlist and fight for the protection and freedom of our country.  Twenty-nine Navajos were recruited into the USMC.

These twenty-nine candidates were assigned to the 382nd Platoon of the USMC and sent to boot camp at Fort Elliot, California. The candidates were trained how to survive the harsh environment they would encounter in the Pacific Theatre. The candidates displayed outstanding physical endurance due to cultural ancestral background and traditional way of life. The main training challenge, in addition to the basic military training, was to create a code in the Navajo language that the Japanese experts would not be able to decipher. After the code was created, it was tested on a number of Navajos who were not Code Talkers and the individuals were unable to understand the code.  Thus, the unbreakable code was created as specified by the USMC mandate. The success of the mandate convinced the USMC to begin training 200 more Code Talkers.

The 382nd Platoon of the USMC were ordered to places like Guadalcanal to begin using the unbreakable code.  When the Code Talkers first arrived in the Pacific battlefield, the USMC field commanders were ordered to pair Code Talkers with Communication Specialists in the battlefield to use the unbreakable code. The Code Talkers provided critical messages in most of the major battlefield conflicts using the unbreakable code in the Pacific Theatre.  The true value of the code became apparent when all coded messages were never deciphered.  In the last battle of the war, the fight for Iwo Jima, the Code Talkers sent more than 800 critical messages. When the Code Talkers returned home after the war, almost all of them participated in the Enemy Way Ceremony, a Navajo ritual, performed for getting rid of military evil spirits.

The United States would have had a more difficult time in winning the war without the Navajo Code Talkers. It would be difficult to estimate the number of American lives that were saved by using the code.  After World War II ended, the Navajo code was classified to be kept secret for 10 years by the USMC. It appears that it was the only unbreakable code in American war history.

The Navajo Coded Messages.

When a Navajo code talker received a message, what he heard was a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The code talker first had to translate each Navajo word into its English equivalent. Then he used only the first letter of the English equivalent in spelling an English word. Thus, the Navajo words "wol-la-chee" (ant), "be-la-sana" (apple) and "tse-nill" (axe) all stood for the letter "a." One way to say the word "Navy" in Navajo code would be "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di-glini (victory) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)."

Most letters had more than one Navajo word representing them. Not all words had to be spelled out letter by letter. The developers of the original code assigned Navajo words to represent about 450 frequently used military terms that did not exist in the Navajo language. Several examples: "besh-lo" (iron fish) meant "submarine," "dah-he-tih-hi" (hummingbird) meant "fighter plane" and "debeh-li-zine" (black sheep) meant "squad."

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